CAEN, France -- After so many years of riding in Lance
Armstrong's wake, how will his heir -- whoever that may be -- cope
with the pressure of wearing the race leader's yellow jersey as the
finish in Paris nears?
It's a question some favorites already are asking themselves.
"I've imagined it enough. I think it'll be normal. I'll be all
right," American Floyd Landis said after safely completing
Thursday's stage five, which was won by three-time former world
champion Oscar Freire in a sprint finish.
Race leader Tom Boonen, who placed second, is learning all about
the added weight that comes with trying to hang onto the prized
jersey that seven-time champion Armstrong made his own from
"It's been causing a lot of strain," said the world champion,
whose lead over Australian Michael Rogers grew Thursday to 13
seconds. Freire vaulted from 20th to third overall, bumping George
Hincapie of the United States down to fourth. They are both 17
seconds behind Boonen.
Although Boonen has won smaller stage races and the treacherous
Paris-Roubaix classic, he is still seen -- and sees himself -- as a
sprint contender, not as a favorite for the overall Tour title that
will be decided in long time trials and mountain climbs in the
Pyrenees and Alps in weeks two and three.
"It's more heavy for me because I'm not supposed to wear it,"
the Belgian said of the yellow shirt that he first took Tuesday and
will wear for a third straight day on Friday's stage six, which
marks the end of the first week.
"It's something I have to work for very hard because I'm not
the kind of rider to wear yellow in the Tour," Boonen added. "I'm
very, very proud of it."
Landis is the kind of rider that could be wearing yellow when
the Tour heads out of the Alps back toward the finish in Paris on
July 23. The Pennsylvanian is a solid time-trialer and mountain
climber and learned from the best. He and Armstrong were teammates
before Landis switched to the Swiss outfit Phonak.
Armstrong was a master in building and holding onto Tour leads.
He soaked up, even thrived on, the pressure of being in yellow and
the center of attraction. He surrounded himself with strong
teammates such as Landis who controlled the race, allowing rivals
few if any openings to make up lost time.
But this year, in a field depleted by Armstrong's retirement and
a doping scandal that forced out the favorites to succeed him, no
single team yet has displayed the dominance that was the hallmark
of his U.S. Postal and Discovery Channel squads.
Instead, the racing so far has had a mellower, less regulated,
more fluid feel. Boonen said the searing temperatures of the first
few days -- which eased Thursday with a little rain and overcast
skies -- also affected the pace.
How teams and top riders will cope with the pressure if they are
in position to win going into and coming out of the Alps is one of
the many questions hanging over a Tour filled with uncertainties
and ripe for surprises.
"Coming out of the Alps?" mused Landis, who placed 34th
Thursday and is eighth overall. "I can't plan on anything like
that, I've gotta take it one day at a time."
For now, contenders for the overall title have been
concentrating not on placings but on avoiding crashes that often
mar the relatively flat and fast first week and which took out a
top rider, Alejandro Valverde of Spain, who fractured a collarbone,
"You stay safe, stay out of trouble, try to conserve as much
energy as possible. It is not rocket science," said American Levi
Leipheimer, 49th on Thursday and 25th overall.
Boonen's goal is not wearing yellow in Paris but green -- the
color of the jersey awarded to the Tour's best sprinter.
He is one point behind Australian sprinter Robbie McEwen, who
won the green jersey in 2002 and 2004, in that category. But Boonen
has yet to display the explosiveness he showed on the past two
Tours, when he won four stages. He blamed his second place Thursday
on a mistake in the final sprint.
"I think I'm a little bit too nervous," he said.
Freire, of the Rabobank squad, made no mistakes, accelerating
sharply in the last 300 yards and sprinting up the right side of
the finishing straight to take the stage victory, his second in
three Tours. Inaki Isasi of the Basque team Euskaltel placed third.
McEwen, winner of two sprint stages this Tour and 10 overall, was
"It wasn't the way that I'm used to sprinting. I usually stay
in other riders' wheels and wait until the last second," said
Freire. But this time "what I needed to do was to take the
initiative ... That is what I did."